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WATCH: How theatre is helping Polmont’s young offenders put their lives in better Motion

It’s a cold, weekday afternoon at HMYOI Polmont. 

The wind whistles around the barred windows, the red bricked walls and barbed wire tipped fences as birds soar over the prison; their dancing, happy freedom an almost mocking salute to the people in the building below.

But, inside, in an unexpected corner of the prison, there’s also dancing – a pocket of happiness and a freedom that comes only with letting go of the past and inviting the future in. Or, more specifically in this case, Futureproof.

As part of Scotland’s Year of Young People, the National Theatre of Scotland’s festival of work for and by young people, Futureproof, and award winning theatre company Glas(s) Performance are working with a group of young male offenders from Polmont.

They’re creating Motion, a show which explores questions of identity, inheritance and what it means to be a young man in Scotland today.

they’ve come from places where being a man means you’re part of a gang, or where you have to be the ‘hard man’ to survive or be respected.”

After being scanned in through security, and after a long, chilly walk down the “route” – a metallic tunnel which joins the main visitors entrance to the prison – the performance room is welcomingly warm, dark, and there’s a buzz in the air.

This space isn’t a prison. It’s the opposite. An oasis of laughter, freedom, opportunity, safety and excitement shrouded by glitzy curtains and set lights.

It’s this oasis that has helped Ben, 21, transform from the angry, lost person he previously felt into a more confident, content young man.

“Being involved in the project, and performing, it’s taken away the boredom that gets you into trouble here and on the outside,” he says.

“I never saw myself doing anything like this. It’s right out of my comfort zone but then that’s helped me to be more confident.

“I’m more wacky too. It’s just really helped me come out my shell and I don’t feel as angry anymore.”

Around 95% of all Scotland’s prisoners are male. HMYOI Polmont has around 700 inmates, with around 500 male offenders.

Jess Thorpe, co-director of Motion and co-Artistic director of Glas(s) Performance, is also a part-time lecturer in Arts in Social Justice at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland where she designs and delivers creative projects in prisons and communities affected by crime.

“I think the biggest challenge is the belief in people that they can do it,” says Jess.

“In Motion, the challenge was getting the young men to believe that they can make a show from scratch and that people do want to hear what they’ve got to say.

“It’s also about getting them to see that theatre is the start of a longer journey for them and that their voices are there to be used.”

The young men involved have fully created the show from start to finish, and perform the piece themselves with hints into the worlds they’ve each come from.

Currently, 95% of Scotland’s prisoners are male, and 72% are under 36. This isn’t a coincidence say the young men in Motion, with fights a major part of allowing built up emotion and surging, young male testosterone to manifest in aggression.

In Scotland, the imprisoned population comes disproportionately from the most deprived communities in the country.  In addition, according to a study by researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University, the probability of imprisonment rises with increasing deprivation.

People see tattoos, scars and they automatically think you’re a thug.”

Deprivation itself of course does not cause people to end up in prison, but living in areas where survival is perhaps harder, or where wealth is lacking means unlawful decisions may often be the only options available.

“You have to remember, these young men, they’ve come from places where being a man means you’re part of a gang, or where you have to be the ‘hard man’ to survive or be respected,” says George Ferguson, head of offender outcomes at HMYOI Polmont.

“But, being a part of this project has made them look at themselves differently,” he continues.

“They’ve built strong relationships with the theatre workers, and with each other. So it’s really improved their communication skills, their confidence in themselves, their self-esteem and how they view masculinity.”

Like many of the other young men involved in the project, Ben has lived a life where toxic influences and fighting have been prevalent. Where, he admits, anger and aggression would often be the first reactions to a difficult situation.

The young men involved in the project say Motion has helped them come out of their shells and grow in confidence.

But Motion, believes George – and the very meaning of the show highlighting that we don’t always have to be in one position or stance forever – has helped to open up the young men’s eyes to a different way of tackling issues.

“Now they see that being a man doesn’t just mean being ‘hard,'” he says.

“They’ve seen another side of masculinity through the questions asked in the show.

“Now they see that it can also mean being respectful, being a good father, a good husband, being responsible and getting a job.”

A job being exactly what Ben has lined up for when he gets out of Polmont. As well as a new home and hopes to set up a youth group to help stop the cycle of his peers following his path into prison.

“I made a lot of bad decisions because of influences on the outside and getting into fights,” he says.

“But when I get out, I’ve got a personal training apprenticeship lined up, and my own house sorted and just want to get involved with my wee niece and nephew.

“I know I wasn’t always a good role model to them, but now I just want to provide, be a family man and just get on with things.

“I’ve also been talking to Action For Children charity and I’m hoping to get a wee youth group set up for young boys to make sure this doesn’t happen to them too.

“I gave them a name for it: Change Before Conviction, so hopefully I can work with them to get that up and running.”

Motion will be performed to a select audience today at Polmont where the young men say they “want the audience to leave thinking what we made was good and not what they expected coming into the prison that day.”

And what do they think people expect?

“People see tattoos, scars and they automatically think you’re a thug,” says Ben.

“I know I’ve been a dafty in the past, but I know how to use my time constructively now. Doing things like this, playing guitar, getting fit.

“I just want to be succeeding in life.”

And, for a group of dramaturgically inexperienced young men to create an eloquent, insightful and humorous performance from scratch and work successfully with two revered theatre companies? They certainly seem on the right path currently to do just as Ben hopes.

As I handed in my visitor’s pass, left the building, and once again looked up at HMYOI Polmont, I knew I had seen, felt and experienced Motion, in far more ways than one.

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All images, footage and film by Megan McEachern.